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A Fireside Chat With Henry Grimes

AAJ Staff By

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It didn't happen until about thirty years or so after that. I wasn't thinking of how long it was taking. I was just trying to gain perspectives. It was a way of imposing self-isolation.
There once was a man from Philly named Henry Grimes. After studying at Juilliard, this bassist played alongside Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, Gil Evans, Roy Haynes, Steve Lacy, Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Sunny Murray, Anita O'Day, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor. In 1967, at the peak of his assent, the man disappeared.

Thirty-five years later, Grimes was found by a fan of the music living in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles. With no bass, the call went out that Grimes expressed interest in playing the instrument once more and William Parker answered the call. Since, the bassist on such monumental recordings like Albert Ayler's Spirits Rejoice, Don Cherry's Symphony for Improvisers, and Sonny Rollins' Our Man in Jazz, has been playing the instrument he helped define for generations of musicians in Los Angeles and New York. The journey of Henry Grimes is an interesting one. The disappearance of Grimes is a puzzling one.

But the reemergence of Grimes is the best story to come out of music in years. I spoke with Grimes shortly before a trip to New York, his second since leaving in 1967. The following is my conversation (unedited and in his own words) with a musician who defines just what a true musician is, never failing to live a musical life, even if the music is in silence.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

HENRY GRIMES: When I was younger than eighteen, I would say about twelve years old or even before that, it was a love of swing music, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey. Later on, it was Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and all the quality musicians of those schools. I knew them for years and just trying to contemplate what they were playing just led me where I am.

FJ: Have you always played bass?

HG: No, I played violin, then I took the tuba in high school, tuba, English horn, percussion, and then the bass.

FJ: When did you pick up the bass?

HG: Thirteen or fourteen years old in high school. First, I used to play violin and then I switched to bass, playing in orchestras, but by the time I got out of high school and into Juilliard, I was a bassist. I was enrolled there for two years. The school was great. I was studying a lot of harmony and theory writing, base studies. I took a lot of orchestra training playing for opera singers. That I sort of enjoyed and during that time, I played a little opera music. It was very interesting.

FJ: The violin wasn't for you?

HG: I liked it, but it just was something that I didn't like about it. Maybe it is just that I am not a violin player. I'm a bassist, so that must be what it is.

FJ: Why did you leave Juilliard?

HG: It was certain difficulties with financial and transportation. I was commuting between New York and Philadelphia everyday. I just had to give that up. Now, I am in New York again, but that was the first time I was in New York. The second time, I was beginning to play with musicians like Sonny Red and playing at Birdland and going through the whole scene that way.

FJ: Philly, at that period, was a bastion for the music.

HG: I think it was as far as musicians. There were a lot of musicians that were coming up. It wasn't so vibrant as far as getting the musicians work and letting a lot of free expression of the music occur, but there were a lot of musicians who did make it occur like Jimmy Garrison, John Coltrane, and a lot of other musicians. Miles Davis and Charlie Parker used to be somewhat familiar with Philadelphia.

FJ: How did you get the Sonny Rollins gig?

HG: About my second or third time in New York, I worked with Anita O'Day and Gerry Mulligan's groups. I met Sonny Rollins and he enlisted me for his group. The music was great. Sonny is a great teacher without realizing it. The reception for the music in Europe was tremendous and also here too. I know that when I first met Sonny, he was working with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, their group. I sat in with them in Philadelphia and that is how I knew him in New York after that. The reception for his music was very great. He really knows how to play this music to crowds. He is very good that way. There were a lot of positive things happening for the music.

FJ: You also had a close association with free jazz cult figure Perry Robinson, featuring him on your lone session as a leader, The Call (ESP), as well as Robinson's Funk Dumpling (Savoy).

HG: We used to do a lot of dates at that time.

FJ: And you also did some sessions with Cecil Taylor.

HG: Oh, yeah, Cecil has always been very impressive to me. He is sort of this wild pioneer that would sort of come up to the piano and play more notes than there are on the piano. Musicians like that, you just don't stand up there, you study. That is what happens when you are standing up there playing with them, you just don't stand on the bandstand and play music and forget about it. You have to study certain things that you learned then and there. That is really beautiful about Cecil and other players like that. Cecil is definitely one of my favorites.


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